20 December 2005

Referee Incompetence

After two galling defeats, it's no surprise that the Arseanl faithful are complaining about the referees. What is surprising is that the referees agree.

The first controversy surrounded the Newcastle match referee Dermot Gallagher. After only 14 minutes, Arsenal had a penalty appeal for handball when Gilberto's shot hit Titus Bramble. But the real problems came after the half, when Gilberto was sent off for a second yellow on a marginal foul on Jean-Alain Boumsong. Both of the Brazilian's cards were debatable; to receive two (and a sending-off) was undeniably harsh. Adding injury to insult was the lack of attention paid to Alan Shearer's reckless tackling, including a nasty challenge on Sol Campbell.

Arsène Wenger complained after the match, saying "...they decided to go more physical and the referee allowed more fouls, sent a player off and I don't know why." Surprisingly enough, the officials' board agreed. They demoted Gallagher from Premiership games, at least temporarily, and sent him all the way down to a League One match between Swansea and Doncaster. (Where he promptly crafted another controversy.)

Of course, the result this Sunday had its share of controversy too, most notably for the disallowed Arsenal goal. I wrote at the time that I thought the linesman must have judged Robin van Persie offside. As it turns out, he judged Thierry Henry to have taken an active role, making him offside and bringing up the flag. We know this because the chief referee Keith Hackett said so. What's more, he said that the call was wrong: "When you examine the video many times you can see Henry is not active." In other words, Arsenal should have been up 1-0, completely changing the game.

And how much does this matter? Not a bit. Arsenal still have their two losses. The only possible response is to hold the referees to account for their decisions. Evidently that held true for Gallagher, probably for a history of poor choices, which is appropriate. I am not a fan of video replay even in American stop-and-start sports; I think it would be hideously obtrusive in soccer. I do however think that the rules need clarification; both these decisions rely on interpretations that can prove difficult to make in the flow of play.

Disciplinary punishments will always be difficult; it's fundamentally a judgement call. One problem though is that the gap between yellow and red is immense. The yellow carries very little sanction in itself, while the red puts a team at tremendous disadvantage. That leaves the referee with little room for discretion. I have seen proposals for a penalty box similar to ice hockey or rugby. I'm sure there are dozens of proposals; I would suggest an "orange card" that would result in a 5- or 10-minute penalty.

The orange card would also provide the referee with an additional disciplinary option. Another controversy from Sunday -- though completely normal -- is to compare the yellow cards awarded to Robin van Persie and Michael Essien. Essien drew a yellow for his violent swing at Lauren (knocking out a tooth), while RVP drew the exact same penalty for pounding the ball in frustration. That's all according to normal interpretation, of course. But perhaps an orange card would have offered referee Rob Styles an intermediate option that would allow him to differentiate between the two offenses. Of course, none of this helps out Dermot Gallagher, who was wildly inconsistent. Some folks can't be helped.

As for the offside rule, FIFA continually tweaks the interpretations, trying to add clarity but only making thing muddier. The current rule adds the criteria of "active play", stating that a player is only offside if he is:Which really is complete bollocks. Because now a defender has no idea whether a player is offside or not, because it all depends on a tricky judgement call that even the linesman is barely competent to make, let alone the defender. The end result is that nobody knows when an offside flag will be raised, and that doesn't help anyone.

I've seen several proposals to fix the offside rule. I can see merits and problems with many of them. But in the end I think the right approach to take would be to simplify things as much as possible. Remove complexity from the decision, and at least everybody will know what's going on. The logical consequence of this is to do away with the offside rule entirely, and I'm not completely convinced this would be a bad thing, or that it would in the end be a huge change. It would definitely reduce the ability for teams to pack the midfield, since they couldn't rely on holding a high line to keep strikers away from the goal. It's still probably not a good idea, but I'd love to see a competent league try it out for a few matches to see how things go.

These are all improvements around the margins. The game will always have human referees making decisions, and that means potential for interpretation, misjudgement, and error. There are fixes (not necessarily mine!) that can address some of the worst problems, and FIFA would be foolish to ignore them. But in the end, we'll always have referees making mistakes, and teams upset about them. It's a normal part of the game.

But, oh man, I sure would like to have had that early Arsenal goal on Sunday.

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